We Are All Equally Ignorant

Our leaders continue to display hubris to the power of Dunning-Kruger, of course the world they designed is failing.  We are all going to suffer for that.

As a first step to the clear thinking needed to correct those failures, we need to understand the limits of our understanding, the unlimited ignorance we all embody and why we must be ignorant of even the extent of our ignorance, why we have to work to incorporate an understanding of our near-total ignorance into good decisions.

“Ignorance n. The condition of being uneducated, unaware, or uninformed.”

You don’t have to be dumb to be ignorant, although it helps.  Blazing incredible super-intelligence can only allow you to comprehend how truly ignorant you are and always will be, and that only if you work at it.

Consider the case of a person who is such a genius that he can read and comprehend one book’s knowledge every week. A book per week outside of your specialty with complete ‘did all the problems and wrote some essays that related it to previous knowledge’ understanding is in the neighborhood of supergenius. There are few such persons. 60 years in a long working life = 3000 books could be comprehended by our supergenius, and he would have time to use the knowledge only if he didn’t sleep much.

There have been 130 million books written. Say that one of ten thousand is now relevant, 13,000. Thus, it would take supergenius 4+ lifetimes to catch up to today.

There are approximately 2,200,000 new titles and editions published around the world every year. Many of those are instruction manuals, specifications, parts lists, … Assuming they average a 300-page book in length and that 1 in 1000 is new information or interpretation or theory, 2,200 books. So our supergenius can comprehend 50/2200 = 2% of new books every year.

In 2006, 1,350,000 scientific journal articles were published. Assume 10 pages each, 13,500,000 pages. Books are 300 pages in that universe, journals are 45,000 book-equivalents. Journals have more new information than books, let us assume 1 in 100 is new, 4500 per year.

Our man can’t even read one year’s scientific journals in his lifetime.

Those aren’t the only important things of course. Most publishing is now done on the web, like this you are reading.  Many publications are now entirely electronic.  Those usually don’t get ISBN numbers and aren’t counted in the above.

A lot of history happened in the year before our mentat hero got around to looking at the subject, all of it is new and most of it still in newspapers and magazines. At least as much as the scientific journals, at least 4500 book-equivalents per year.  Also important for good decisions, it can’t be ignored.

A lot of human social output these days is videos : none of us can keep up with the few dozen things were are interested in, and we are always finding new genres we never heard of. Youtube is getting days of video every minute, nobody will ever catch up with that stream of information, not even the good ‘how to do practical things’ genre.

Add in some practical knowledge, which very likely equals all of that, a few dashes of human wisdom.

Relative to total knowledge, our hypothetical most-dedicated, focused, free-to-pursue-knowledge super-genius at the end of his life is still astonishingly ignorant relative to all that there is to be known.

That will only get worse: Knowledge tools make individuals and groups smarter and more capable, but we also develop better research tools and have more people collecting, analyzing and disseminating information. The rate of new knowledge continues to increase.

We are, every one of us, equally ignorant relative to known-and-recorded information to about 20 decimal places to the right of zero, and next year it will be 21, etc. *

Where are you relative to our most dedicated, focused, free to pursue knowledge supergenius?

How much of all that wisdom and knowledge is necessary to indefinitely maintain and defend a civilization with a decent level of medical care? Can you identify it in advance? Can you be sure that some bit of obscure knowledge in an obscure journal can be ignored, doesn’t have the cure to the pandemic in your future? Want to bet your family?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of that, you should apply to work at FEMA.  Your hubristic megalomania will fit right in.

Otherwise, don’t you think the understanding of how much you can’t possibly know about our beyond-any-human’s-comprehension complex world is vital to good decisions?  That extreme humility in the face of our individual massive ignorance dictates caution and small steps, inexpensive exploration of possibly-good futures?

Does not humble caution in a world of unknown unknowns define a Conservative?

*Note we are discussing knowns.  It is not possible to estimate the amount of unknown relative to known.

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